How Player Pianos Can Enhance the Lives of Seniors

Steve Cohen (Spring 2021)

As baby boomers retire, and despite the challenges caused by the current pandemic, the demand for high-quality living facilities for seniors continues its exponential growth. Many senior-living communities are designed to offer amenities much more like those of resorts than simple room and board for the elderly. Such enhancements may include spacious and well-appointed living quarters with full kitchens, daily gourmet meals with cocktail hours, swimming pools, game rooms, spas, and lounges. Activities such as art classes, exercise classes, concerts, and other performances abound. Most senior communities employ full-time Activity Directors who strive to keep their clients engaged in life with calendars filled with programs and activities—and music is often a core part of many of these activities.

Piano in senior living center

Music touches us in ways that, while still not fully understood, are universal and powerful, and plays a major role in helping seniors cope with the varied challenges of aging. Research has shown that the impact of music on memory can be significant for seniors, particularly those living with dementia or other challenges related to memory. This is because, even as knowledge- or reason-related memory deteriorates, the type of memory connected with music, or with playing a musical instrument, is often unaffected.

Player Piano Keyboard

Even more significant is that music can dramatically affect mood, relieving the stress and anxiety caused by loss of memory, dementia, or other age-related problems. Just hearing or singing a simple and familiar song can change one’s frame of mind for the better. “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast”—there may be no better example of the truth of that line from The Mourning Bride, by the English playwright William Congreve (1697), than the effect of music on memory-compromised seniors. A versatile way to optimize music’s usefulness in positively affecting mood, while at the same time enhancing interior décor, is through the acquisition and use of a self-playing (“player”) grand piano.

From an interior-design perspective, a grand piano is unique in its effect—on entering a room that has a grand on display, your eyes and mind are immediately drawn to it. As journalist John Morell said three decades ago (April 21, 1990) in the L.A. Times: “The grand is a symbol of taste and romance. It’s the intensity of Horowitz playing his soul out on synthetic ivory-esque keys. It’s ‘As Time Goes By’ echoing in Rick’s Cafe. It’s the sensuality of Michelle Pfeiffer spread out on Jeff Bridges’ piano in ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys.’” Whatever the setting, a grand piano adds class. Add a player-piano system, and it’s one of the few assets that are both elegant and immensely useful.

Celebrating at the piano

For most seniors, modern player-piano technology is a fascinating novelty, and such instruments often becomes a focal point for the community’s activities:

  • Songs from the “candlelight and wine” or “dinner music” songbook play as residents gather for cocktail hour or as they eat, adding elegance and richness to their dining experience. Post-dining sing-alongs can become regular events, accomplished without the expense of hiring a lounge pianist.
  • Outside artists can be hired for performances, or to take part in weekly or monthly concert series. To encourage socializing—a primary goal of senior communities—the player system can be engaged for 30 minutes before a performance to warm up the audience, as well as afterward.
  • Music is a common tool for facilitating many forms of exercise to keep residents fit, another core goal of modern senior communities. The player piano can enhance Pilates, aerobics, bodyweight training, resistance-band workouts—even chair yoga.
Group dancing
  • Musical accompaniment or background music provided by a player piano can enhance such activities as art and dance classes, sing-alongs, couples and group dancing, etc.
  • Caroling at Christmas while gathered around the piano is a real memory maker. An extensive library of Christmas and other holiday music is included.
  • With or without the player system engaged, games such as Name That Tune, Sing the Next Line, Name the Artist, and Finish the Song Title are popular, fun, and therapeutic, especially for memory-challenged residents.
  • It’s almost certain that among the residents will be several well-trained pianists who would love to share their skill. (Although not commonly used in senior-living communities, optional “record” units are available that can record and then play back music played on the piano by residents.)
  • And it’s never too late to learn to play!
iPad PianoDisc Player Kawai

Today’s player grand piano is a far cry from Grandma’s pedal-pumper upright and paper rolls. The player mechanism of today’s player pianos is completely invisible, and easily operated by any iOS or Android smart device such as an iPhone, iPad, or Galaxy. And when the piano’s player component is not in use, the instrument can be played just like a regular piano. When the player component is engaged, the piano plays itself: its keys go up and down, and its hammers actually hit the strings, producing a rich, dynamic tone. This is not an audio recording but a live piano performance by an invisible “player.” Facilities that already have a non-player grand piano can have a state-of-the-art player system installed.

Modern player pianos offer three basic modes of play. First are solo-piano performances, such as are found in the classical repertoire. Virtually all of the most popular classics are available, from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms, from Mozart to Chopin to Rachmaninoff.

The second mode is piano with accompaniment, in which the piano plays itself, with a band or orchestra—often the one in the original recording—playing in the background via speakers hidden inside the piano. A recording by the Dave Brubeck Quartet offers a good example: Brubeck’s piano part is faithfully reproduced “live” by the player grand, while the original recording of the Quartet’s three other members plays along through the speakers.

The third mode consists of songs actually sung by the original artist, accompanied by the piano playing itself, with the band heard in the background. Imagine, for example, listening to Billy Joel playing the piano “live” while singing “The Piano Man” with the band that accompanied him on his original 1973 recording.

Many hours of music are included with the basic system, and hundreds of hours more can be downloaded with the included app or through iTunes. Literally thousands of songs are available in all genres: classical, jazz, dinner music, holiday favorites, sing-alongs, pop, showtunes, country, and rock’n’roll. Many songs and albums feature performances by such artists such as Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Buffett, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Barry Manilow, Carly Simon, Earth, Wind & Fire, and dozens more.

Having a carefully curated playlist that includes songs known to evoke positive reactions from particular residents optimizes the value of each activity’s musical element. With the included app, creating customized playlists is as easy as dragging and dropping. The app is also used to control the volume, and the balance between the piano’s “live” performance and its accompaniment.



Piano truck for moving a piano

In many institutional locations, being able to easily move a grand piano can greatly improve and expand its usefulness. For this purpose, an optional piano “truck” can be installed. A grand-piano truck is a specialized wheeled dolly that allows even the largest grand to be easily moved from room to room by two adults, without disassembly or expert movers, even across carpeted floors, up or down ramps, or across thresholds. And if there’s an elevator with a 5′ 2″ open-door width and a 5′ depth, the piano can be easily moved from floor to floor.

The investment in a player grand piano enables a senior-living community to tap into the power of music to provide pleasure as well as therapy. The instrument becomes a focal point of the community’s interior design, a core asset of its daily recreational activities, and an indispensable tool of the facility’s Activities Director, offering tremendous benefits in health, happiness, and visual appeal at modest cost.

Steve Cohen has been in the piano business for over 50 years, for most of that time as owner of Jason’s Music Center, in Glen Burnie, Maryland. He has also been a consultant to the piano industry, and is Piano Buyer’s Piano Industry Consultant and Contributing Editor. One of Cohen’s areas of specialization is the provision of pianos and player pianos to senior-living facilities. He can be reached at [email protected].

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